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The White River Valley Museum's Hands-On Nature Photography Exhibit

Marvel at George Kinkade's nature photos and shoot your own

Published on: February 15, 2019

White River Valley Museum

The bottom line

Microcosms: The Photography of George L. Kinkade” is a temporary exhibit on display through April 28 at Auburn's White River Valley Museum. George Kinkade was an Auburn resident and employee of the local newspaper, The Auburn Globe, who spent his spare time exploring nature around the Pacific Northwest and capturing its patterns and features in stunning photographs. the exhibit also includes an interactive photo activity where visitors can take their own nature photos.


The White River Valley Museum is a small museum in Auburn, right next door to popular Les Gove Park. It's known for innovative temporary exhibits on diverse topics of interest — from Sasquatch to the history of women's undergarments — as well as permanent, interactive exhibits that explore local history.

My 15-year-old daughter and I visited recently to check out the “Microcosms” exhibit. Local photographer Kinkade hiked and climbed all over the Pacific Northwest for over five decades, capturing scenes of mountains and nature, including some spots that no longer exist. His subjects ranged from grand things, such as ice caves and glaciers, to small ones, such maple leaves.

The word “microcosm” means “encapsulating in miniature the characteristic qualities or features of something much larger.” The exhibit consists of a small sampling of his work, with photos paired in a way to highlight the repeating patterns in nature, from large to small — hence the exhibit's title. In one photo pairing, a pattern visible in driftwood mimics the striations of a glacier.

Also on display are his typewriter and ice ax, along with lots of quotes and information about his life.

A pair of photographs by George L. Kinkade on display at the White River Valley Museum.

Getting hands-on

The interactive part of the exhibit consists of two mini photo “studios” that visitors can use. These are small boxes with studio lights, interchangeable colored backdrops, colored plastic sheets to change the color of the lights and a tripod to hold your smartphone. A variety of natural objects such as driftwood, stones, logs, feathers and more are available for setting up and shooting your own still-life masterpiece.

The different backdrops attach with velcro and the two small lights can be moved around or switched off if you just want to use one. My daughter and I enjoyed arranging various objects and taking artful close-up photos using different colored filters that we held up in front of the lights. The only difficulty we encountered was having enough hands to hold the filters over both lights and to take a photo. You'll need a helper, but families can work together. The volunteer docent we spoke to said they are working on a way to make this part more hands-free.

I recommend this temporary exhibit for kids and families interested in photography, nature, hiking or climbing. Almost anyone would enjoy tinkering with the mini photo studios and capturing a great shot.

More to view

Even if some of your crew isn't terribly interested in photography, they will enjoy the interactive exhibits in the rest of the museum, such as the miniature Muckleshoot longhouse, complete with tiny figures and a glowing campfire. Kids can look for a list of objects in the longhouse, and sniff canisters to guess the scents, such as wood smoke and pine.

Walk through a log cabin replica, and then prepare a meal at the kid-sized cook tent. This area includes a play campfire with marshmallows and salmon to roast — all made of soft fabric — as well as lanterns and a table inside the tent.

Riding Sandy the horse. Credit: Mike Hipple

The largest area is a replica of downtown Auburn in the 1920s, complete with a hat shop, hotel, blacksmith, general store, a farmhouse owned by a Japanese-American family, a school room and a real caboose. In the schoolroom, kids can practice penmanship on chalkboards and at the farmhouse display, they can open drawers to see (but not touch) toys and other items children at that time might have owned.

Next to the train is another play tent called the train repair tent, and it features play trains and tools. Kids can walk into the caboose and pretend to conduct the train with a conductor’s hat.

Don't miss riding “Sandy,” a coin-operated mechanical horse from a store in old Auburn (bring a dime or ask a museum volunteer for one to ride). Kids will be delighted that it offers a much faster and jerkier ride than the typical mechanical rides of today.

The museum is small, which will make it a quick trip for many families (we went through it in about an hour).

If you go...

Find it: The White River Valley Museum is located at 918 H St. S.E. in Auburn. Reach the museum by phone at 253-288-7433.

Hours: The museum's regular hours are Wednesday–Sunday, noon–4 p.m.

Admission: Cost is $5 for adults; $2 for children and seniors; tots ages 2 and under are free. Enjoy free admission on the first Thursday and the third Sunday of every month. On first Thursdays, the museum offers free “late play dates” from 6–8 p.m., with themed crafts and activities for kids. Check the website for more events.

Age recommendation: I recommend the “Microcosms” exhibit for school-age kids who are interested in photography and who enjoy using the mini photo studio. Preschool to elementary age kiddos will enjoy the rest of the museum.

Insider tip: Ask at the front desk for free activity sheets, such as scavenger hunts, dot-to-dot pictures and Morse code practice for kids to use while exploring. They even have scavenger hunt handouts with pictures for littles who are too young to read.

Upcoming museum events:

  • Sunday, Feb. 17, 2–3:30 p.m.: A free screening of a documentary film about famous photographer Ansel Adams. 
  • Tuesday, March 5, 4–5 p.m.: Join the library's story club for ages 7–12 to talk about the book "The Firekeeper's Son" by Linda Sue Park. Snacks provided. Free.
  • Sunday, March 31, noon–4 p.m.: Youth in Focus digital photography workshop for ages 12–16. Preregister; $40 fee includes all supplies.

Bonus: Next door, find popular Les Gove Park, which boasts a seasonal spray park. Charming nearby Mary Olson Farm won't be open until June 25, after this particular temporary exhibit has closed, but make a mental note as it's a free and fun summer destination (open weekends). See the restored farm buildings and have a picnic on the grounds.

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